Thursday, July 7, 2016

Brief Thoughts on Motherhood


Four years ago, if you had told me that I'd have work published in an anthology of poems about motherhood, I would have told you that yes, I write about my cats from time to time. Or I would have rolled my eyes. Four years ago, I was convinced I could never have children and had come to terms with that over the course of a long drive from Colorado to New York with my husband. My home was going to be a haven for rescued animals and I'd be a stellar auntie, driving my nieces and nephews to their first tattoo appointments and teaching them to effectively handle words like motherfucker in tasteful conversation.

When I swept my copy of All We Can Hold from the mailbox two nights ago, I had a moment. If my neighbors ever looked at me, they probably couldn't tell how awkward I felt. I folded the package from Sage Hill Press into our junk mail, leafy flyers for discounted pizza and ice cream bars. I helped my daughter turn her pink tricycle around and we moved slowly back toward the house.

Motherhood is a uniquely tricky subject for me. Every time it works its way into my poetry, I feel conflicted. It's there, my unexpected motherhood, this privilege wrapped in the barbs of loss and expectation. Six years ago, I stood, bleeding, in the emergency room hallway in the Fort Benning hospital while a doctor behind the wall called my cell phone to say, I just looked at your ultrasound and there's no sign of pregnancy. I'm not sure why you're here. And it was over. My only pregnancy, all my good, vague reasons for wanting a child, dissolved like an experiment. I went home and waited for emptiness to set in.

Pregnancy didn't happen after that, for years. So we stopped trying in 2012. Tom kept deploying anyway and my career was taking off, so I never developed any serious interest in IVF. It wasn't meant to be - for us - and that was all right. I was still more concerned with the chance I'd had and lost. Infertility was a biological conundrum I couldn't psychologically afford to challenge.

I didn't write about any of this until I read Robert Peake's The Silence Teacher and overnight a gate was unlatched. I started seeing patterns in our society that disturbed me: the way Western culture encourages women to strive for pregnancy as an achievement reserved only for some - those women who "have it all" but only once they become mothers. Babies become idols. Pictures of swollen bellies become offerings delivered via social media to a slew of silent women who have to fend off the isolation, guilt, doubt, bitterness and/or irritation this celebration provokes. I worked with women who chose not to have children and were smothered by strangers' questions. I worked with women who struggled to conceive and their polite silence etched itself on my brain like the ocean against a shoreline.

In 2013, after Tom returned from Afghanistan, I was pregnant. I was speechless unless I was writing. I went to a ten-hour poetry workshop on my due date; I studied German war poetry and taught workshops at the library in Binghamton. I had been given an invaluable gift and I took it with full consciousness of the women who didn't want it or couldn't have it and all they had to endure because of those experiences.

It didn't help matters when I almost died during my daughter's delivery. I remember everything going bright white, I remember the purple flowers on the hospital wallpaper. I remember thinking, I had it good.

One of the ways I love my husband and daughter is to write about them only when I feel personally compelled to do so, and I had some poems tucked away when Sage Hill's call for submissions went out. The first poem I wrote about Mae, "My Daughter Practices Saying Hi", is in this anthology. Postpartum, I was struck with guilt one night when I realized I tucked my baby in for sleep by saying "I'm nearby" instead of "I love you", which is what I suddenly figured I ought to be saying. When the friends I'd made before I was pregnant - all of them kind, good people - stopped calling or writing, I was struck again by the same guilt. I had to fight a little harder for opportunities to stay engaged in my own field because other professionals said I had "a little one to think of", as if Mae, instead of flying open in my life like a window into innocence and vulnerability, had fallen on my passions like a beautiful, bronze candle snuffer I ought to spend more time polishing and appraising. I wrote "Motherhood Is Not Enough for Me", which is also in the anthology.

These brief thoughts on motherhood, the ones that fall outside of poetry with the grace of dropped potatoes, are ones that still trouble me. I have no interest in condemning women who celebrate their pregnancies and babies, though I'm not ashamed to say I think about why we do these things and say what we say. Someone once told me I had to "be a mother first, wife second, and woman third". My throat tightens now, thinking of it. I am the same human being I've always been, thanks, and inside my writing is a tiny cosmos of societal roles I play, all of them simultaneous and overwhelming. I am a mother who sometimes struggles to understand how much she can possibly love her daughter. I am a wife and poet and woman and citizen of a country that is currently crumbling under acts of hate that strike like meteors and pull open gaping chasms in our ground. I am a questioner and watcher and friend and listener and I am hopelessly confident and confused.

Thank you for reading compassionately, and for checking out All We Can Hold: Poems of Motherhood, the anthology that has made such an impact on me.

3 comments:

Christa said...

Absolutely brilliant and heartfelt as always Abby. Always so proud of you and to have been able to meet and spend time with you. I hope to one day see you again and meet your beautiful Mae. She's blessed to have you.

Abby Murray said...

Thank you so much, Christa! I hope we can meet up again too someday.

DMW said...

So glad to have stumbled onto your work, Abby, I hope you keep writing. I hear you. I have long believed that there is nothing I have done in my life that is more important than raising my two children. But like you, I am a mother, wife, poet, teacher, advocate for issues important to my community in Hawaii. Do let me know if you come here. Dawn dawnmorais.com